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12 Apr 2018

Jason Wilsher Mills

Jason Wilsher Mills is a UK based disabled artist that has recently had his augmented reality sculpture Brave Boy Billy exhibited in London’s Tate Modern gallery, here fellow disabled artist Scott Michael asks him some questions for Thisability Newspaper.

Hi Jason, how long have you been a practicing artist and what are your highlights?

I graduated in 1992 from Cardiff, where I was studying painting for my degree, but soon afterwards went into teaching. This put a 15 year hiatus to my artistic practice.

When I became ill in 2004, and subsequently disabled, I felt I had courage to finally ‘run away with the circus’ and actually become a professional artist. Because of the nature of my disability, I spent a lot of time in bed, with intense pain & fatigue. It soon became apparent that I could not paint in a traditional manner, so took the decision to purchase an iPad and paint digitally, because I could ‘paint’ and have a whole studio, contained within the 9x 6 inch screen. This changed my life.

In December 2010 I bought my first iPad and in the following April I was exhibiting in America. To coin a well known phrase ‘I wasn’t in Kansas anymore’.

I felt very isolated in my artistic practice, being both disabled and suffering from numerous health problems, and was supported by SHAPE Arts, who are a organization who support disabled artists. If it was not for them, I would not have had any of the success I have had. They have been pivotal in my career.

The highlights of my artistic career have been plenty, from being commissioned to create art for the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, to creating 2 banners for the Houses of Parliament, depicting the stories of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Disability Discrimination Act.

This year I had my first major solo exhibition at Artlink Hull, as part of a residency with Hull City of Culture. This residency focused on telling the hidden stories of the disabled & diversity communities of Hull.

Most recently one of my sculptures, ‘Brave Boy Billy’ was shown at Tate Modern as part of the ‘Ghost in the Machine’ disabled art event, curated by SHAPE Arts.

Presently I am conducting a yearlong residency in Corby, Northamptonshire, where I am working with the learning disabled community to create two new augmented reality sculptures, which will tell their story. I am also making a documentary film, which will tell the story of the residency.

How you come to the idea of Brave Boy Billy?

Brave Boy Billy came about, because I was interviewed by the BBC in 2015, as part of the 20th anniversary for the DDA. I was interviewed because I had created a piece of art for parliament about the DDA, and I was suddenly struck by the idea that I was able to talk about my experiences as a disabled person, basically because I have a physical disability, and as such am able to talk up for myself, but those with other disabilities such as learning disabilities are not able, or given a platform to express their opinions or experiences of disability and discrimination; when in fact they as a community probably face this in a much more than others.

I became interested in telling the hidden stories of these communities, of giving them a platform, through using art and technology to do so.

Billy is a traditional sculpture in many ways, as he is made from fibre glass, after being sculpted in clay. But he is a very different piece of art, in the sense that there are augmented reality triggers placed upon the sculpture, which when used in conjunction with AR apps, bring to life the stories of disabled people.

Billy was commissioned by the Global Disability Innovation Hub, as part of their international summit at the Olympic Park in London last year.

I designed him through working with young disabled people in London and he is the first of many such sculptures which will tell the hidden stories of the disabled communities. I am incredibly proud of Billy.

I describe ‘Brave Boy Billy’ as ’trojan horse’ art as it lulls the viewer into believing that the artwork is comical, colourful, etc, when really it is a tool to engage with and subvert the expectations the viewer has of disabled people. Through Billy I have been able to engage the viewer with the ‘brass tacks’ of what it is to be disabled, under a government which deems it acceptable to remove 1000s of motability cars and benefits from the most vulnerable people in society.

I believe that as I disabled artist I am in the trenches and I am involved with guerrilla warfare, using art, technology & humour as weapons in this ongoing war against policies and views which are tearing lives apart.

Humour is a key component of disability politics as the expression of the wish of what others may see as an impossibility used to hold such a dominance in any form of endeavour and with hindsight shows the world to be delusional in with regards to disability. How are we as disabled people to overcome this?

I can only talk for myself, and what it is for me to be a middle aged, balding ‘geezer’ and what my experience of being disabled are. The voice that I employ in my artwork is humorous, because I was brought up in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, where humour is used as a barbed weapon, and as such it is authentic and honest.

The art I make is a starting point for me to engage with the viewer and lull them in with the colour, humour and artistry of the work I make, and then subvert that through the use of the hidden content. Using AR with the sculptures I am able to hit hard with the hidden stories I am sharing of the disabled community. I am trusted to share these stories and it is up to me to do this in a way that does justice to those I work with in the community.

4) As you use augmented reality in your work are you familiar with the dystopian futurism of the cyberpunk genre in which AR has been talked about before it’s arrival into the world? Do you see this as the shape of things to come?

I am familiar but like any genre it can be subverted for good or bad. It is up to the integrity of the artist to ensure that the AR, the technology, is used with an ‘authentic & truthful voice’ and that the stories I can tell with this technology have some integrity about them. I am already planning work, which will enable the viewer to ask questions of my disabled characters and even go into their world virtually. Watch this space!

As a wheelchair user yourself how do you feel about the UK’s policy of funding international space programs where so many in the world are without the most basic need of wheelchairs themselves?

As Billy states in one of his augmented reality triggers, ’60 million people need wheelchairs throughout the world, but only 15 million have access to one’. This statistic is incredibly damning, but one would hope that the research being conducted into space travel might have some positive benefits for disabled people…..Who knows we may benefit from the new velcro! This is somewhat tongue in cheek comment, as I believe firmly that we should be doing all we can to support the most vulnerable people in society.

Society does not mean on our own doorstep either. This should be a global view.

I was told a story of two disabled Indian brothers who have to share a wheelchair, which they have designed and made themselves. This was such a tragic story that I used this to inform the design and making of Billy, as he is a disabled character, but he sits upon a spacehopper as he cannot access a wheelchair.

I have hope that there are many out there who are working very hard on making the lives of disabled people much better. Last year I was fortunate to work with both the Global Disability Innovation Hub & James Dyson Foundation, on residencies which looked at designing better wheelchairs and using technology to improve the lives of disabled people. So there is hope amongst the artistic and technology community.


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